Customer Reviews: The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture (Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature)
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on November 26, 2008
In this review, I intend to describe what the book is, who it is for, and its pluses and shortcomings. Then, I'd like to recommend a few companion volumes. Finally, I want to answer the complaint of one reviewer who claimed that Frances Yates book "On Memory" is better.

Mary Carruthers did the world a tremendous service by writing the book. What she does is investigate the world of pre-modern memory in 500 pages beginning with the Ancients and then using that background as a base from which to cover medieval mnemonics-which both borrowed from and added to ancient systems of memory. She also discusses the role of memory as an art and a part of virtue, how the medievals perceived it, a brief set of theories on how memory works, memory's effects on composition and books, and the like, mnemonic-architectonics (I'll explain this term in a following section), and, finally, the "end" of memory as an art. Some of the work is conjecture, but most of it is simply solid historical material, which Mrs. Carruthers carefully documents and references. The work is, for the most part, divided according to subject rather than time period. Three appendices and two indices, one general and one of the manuscripts referenced, are included as well. Several black and white plates are included as well which are generally reproductions historical examples that are examined. As for the work's physical characteristics, I have a paperbound edition, but it is still quite sturdy.

This book is useful for a variety of people. Obviously, the student of medieval thought is one target. However, for those wishing to educate themselves about a well-nigh forgotten area of knowledge, which was was considered absolutely vital, this work is a godsend. Additionally, for the person who wants to learn how to memorize things systematically, the book provides descriptions of several methods for doing so and breaks down the various systems into their common components. Of especial interest is the system of mnemonic-architectonics, in which one memorizes a physical place, such as a building (or "builds" an imaginary one in one's mind ["castles in the air", anyone?])and uses it as a place to store information in an orderly fashion. The systems described are not simple mnemonic tricks but are extraordinarily useful tools that were vital in an age before the printing press and were (and could still be) invaluable aids in composition. The authoress gives an extended description of how this was done. The copious references also make it possible to go directly to the primary sources, which is a tremendous help.

As for the work's shortcomings, there are very few, in my opinion. The biggest problem is that it is rather dry. However, this is to be expected as it is academic. However, it manages to stay on subject well and deliver a great deal of information. A few digressions into literary theory may or may not interest the reader and some of the conclusions she draws using modern literary theory are debatable. The only other difficulty is that some may disagree with a few of the conjectures of the authoress regarding memory and the medieval mind. Nevertheless, the presence of conjecture in a field that is relatively unexplored is inevitable. Other than that, it is a solid, well-documented work.

There are several works that may work as valuable accompaniments to this book. A translation of some of the primary sources referenced is available in a companion volume The Medieval Craft of Memory: An Anthology of Texts and Pictures (Material Texts) and another volume, The Craft of Thought: Meditation, Rhetoric, and the Making of Images, 400-1200 (Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature) discusses the role of memory (in detail) in medieval rhetoric, meditation, and other areas of life, particularly in the religious communities. Frances Yates's book on memory is also useful as a sort of broad overview.

Finally, I wish to answer an unfair comparison. One previous reviewer claimed that Frances Yates's book, "The Art of Memory" is superior. It is superior only in the sense that it is more readable, at least for the majority of the work. That book is written with a broader audience in mind and has more of a conversational style for recreational reading. However, Yates's specialty in writing tends to lean towards the history of occult movements and the like, and as such, she focuses on these aspects of the history of memory and the medievals don't get all that much space, and, in the end, memory gets pushed off the the side as well. Instead, the thrust of the work is ultimately towards the history of science with a focus on modern science's gnostic and occult roots (she theorizes about the philosopher's stone being the memory, etc, etc). In the last few chapters, the work becomes nearly wholly absorbed in discussions on the hermetic tradition, occultism, and various proto-modern scientists. Yes, it's readable, but readability is not a criterion for excellence save in thrillers and yellow journalism. I didn't find the information to be nearly as valuable or as useful or even as structured as "The Book of Memory". It's not a bad book, but it is much inferior to Mary Carruther's seminal work.
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on May 5, 2000
Carruthers's *Book of Memory* deals with the ways reading, composition, and memory interacted in the Middle Ages. She explores the way texts were used as memory tools or mnemonic devices by medieval readers. Texts, she argues, were not meant to be simply informational. Instead, readers and listeners used mnemonic skills to store the information gleaned from texts in their minds and use that information as the matter for future composition or meditation. Carruthers's writing is clear and informative. This text is comprehensive, often fascinating, and displays the author's vast knowledge of her subject matter. I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in expanding his or her understanding of memory and composition in the Middle Ages. However, this book is not for everyone. It is very dense and goes into great technical detail about its subject matter. Students of medieval language and history will find it most useful.
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on January 23, 2001
This extraordinary book and its companion volume, "The Craft of Thought," represent the most thorough, complete and accurate treatment of the arts of memory available in English. If you have a good academic vocabulary and a latin dictionary handy, this is quite a page turner. It gives you a look inside the heads of ancient and medieval scholars, whose imaginary "memory machines" are conceptual forerunners to the random-access memory in modern computers. Its themes are also a revelation to anyone interested in medieval art history. For example, after reading this, one realizes that medieval manuscripts were colorfully illuminated for the purposes of recollection, not just to make pretty pictures in the margins. This work expands and corrects some of the conclusions of Frances Yates in her pioneering work, "The Art of Memory." This is an intellectual thrill ride!
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon December 3, 2011
Mary Carruther's book on memory in the medieval age is one of those rare books where superb scholarship intersects with fascinating content. The book examines the role, nature, and development of memory in medieval times, and compares those to our modern conceptions of memory. As a construct worthy of examination, memory as viewed today is significantly different than its medieval construction, and Carruthers is able to examine these differences while providing a thorough examination of the medieval conception of memory.

The scope of the book is impressive. The author begins by discussing the various memory models, a subject which should not only be of interest to medievalists, but those working in educational and cognitive psychology. Building upon this base, she then examines the neuropsychology of memory and elementary memory design, using numerous specific cases from the period as examples and as subjects for examination. Having established this base (and quite frankly, it might take digesting this material first necessary to truly grasp the overall thrust of the book), she then proceeds to discuss the arts and memory, memory and the ethics of reading, memory and authority, and finally, memory and the book. Each section is replete with examples (both individuals and material items, such as manuscripts, teaching lessons, art works, etc.). The book is lavishly supported with extensive post-text notes and a large bibliographic library of references. Illustrations are sparse, but are useful when used. For anyone who has spent any time learning about Hugh of St-Victor, Thomas Aquinas, Abelard, or Boethius (or any of a dozen or more historical personages from the era) the work will illuminate the teachings of these individuals by allowing the examination of their historical artifacts through a completely new lens.

This is a complex, scholarly work. Although anyone with an interest in the subjects here--be they medievalists, psychologists, or educators--can benefit from the work, it will take a careful and methodical examination of this relatively dense and richly layered content. But the rewards can be substantial: this is a work that will certainly be considered a text de rigueur for most anyone studying in the field. It brings to light important ideas and concepts about human psychology and memory processes that allow us to increase our knowledge of the middles ages, but also to examine our own concepts of the same. Truly a tour de force.

Supplement this with:
A History of Illuminated Manuscripts
The Craft of Thought: Meditation, Rhetoric, and the Making of Images, 400-1200 (Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature)
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on October 17, 2000
I agree with the reader from New York who praises the scholarship on display here from Prof. Carruthers. Memory, so long a darling subject among intellectual elites, has fallen out of favor among modern intellectuals. Carruthers does an admirable job of re-locating it on our cultural maps.
_The Book of Memory_ suffers, however, in comparison with Frances Yates' classic text, _The Art of Memory_, which manages to be sweepingly ambitious, rigorous, and engaging. Carruthers is more academic. Yates' book is a masterpiece, whereas this one is merely superb.
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on April 23, 2014
A dense read, but a good one. Carruthers helps us understand how seemingly mechanical mnemotechnics were really the cornerstone of a whole way of approaching thought, imagination, and creativity. If the past is a foreign country, then this book is a guided tour through an exotic landscape.
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on October 19, 2014
All books by Mary Carruthers are great overviews of the topic and show a few techniques at memorization. The purpose of the book is not to teach the methods but rather place it in a cultural and historical perspective.
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on September 4, 2013
This book is very useful, but "the craft of thought" is much better! Reading this book is a pleasure.
Imagination really depends on memory!
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on July 26, 2014
A great book about the history of memory training- comprehensive!
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on April 12, 2016
Great book for serious memory palace students!!!!!
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